Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Freda Payne: A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald
Showcase Theatre at the Marin Center
Review by Patrick Thomas

Freda Payne
Photo courtesy of Freda Payne
Freda Payne is best known for her 1970 hit from Invictus Records, "Band of Gold," written by the founders of Invictus, the famed Motown hit team, Holland-Dozier-Holland (Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland). But she began her career as a jazz singer in the early to mid-1960s. One of her biggest influences during that time was one of jazz's greatest vocalists, Ella Fitzgerald. Payne references other inspirations, but claims "Ella was the one I felt most attached to." So it's fitting that some 60 years later, Payne is paying tribute to Lady Ella with a show that illuminated Ella's life through a history of her youth, loves, broken relationships, and music, which was presented on February 16 at Showcase Theatre at the Marin Center.

Mostly her music, for while Payne is a delightful storyteller, cluing us in on Ella's early forays on the stage–including her appearance at the Apollo Theater's amateur night, where she had intended to dance, but ended up singing and winning that night–and being discovered by big band leader Chick Webb, the night was mostly about the songs Ella sang. With an uber-tight trio of musicians (Larry Dunlap on piano, subbing for the COVID-afflicted Tammy Hall; bassist Gary Brown; and drummer Leon Joyce, Jr.) who kept the mood swinging from start to finish, Payne's love for the Queen of Jazz was evident in every moment of her performance.

While Payne is no longer in her prime (she's 81), she showed she is still marvelously musical. Though her pitch may sometimes fell short of the mark, her phrasing and tonation were top-notch. Years of performing have imbued in her perfect timing and thrilling improvisation–especially when she scats, calling to mind Ella's famous vocalizations, but making them all her own. You could hear her channeling Ella not just through the scatting, but also in the way she would land a note, and through phrasings that are distinctively Ella's.

The hits were all here–"A-Tisket, A-Tasket," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Too Darn Hot" and many more–and Payne sang them with a comfortable stage presence and terrific musicality over the course of a little more than two hours. Part of that time was taken by a guest singer, Oakland's Kenny Washington, whose bright, clear tenor was silky and sneakily powerful. His rendition of "Cry Me A River" was achingly gorgeous–one of the best covers of that song I have ever heard.

The evening's host mentioned they are bringing more jazz nights to the Showcase Theatre at the Marin Center, which is a brilliant idea, for the venue is definitely underused, and Marin could use a bit more swing!

Freda Payne: A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald was presented on February 16, 2024, at Marin Center Showcase Theatre, 20 Ave of the Flags, San Rafael CA. For information on upcoming performances, please visit